This can't be love…..

I don’t love my wife….and she didn’t love me.

Now, before my children and former students who might actually read this panic, and those of you who have been following along since I started this blog 13 posts ago start to cry “Bullshit!” or think I have truly gone off the deep end, let me elucidate. What I believe we had was far more than love. I don’t think the English language has one simple term that can encompass the relationship.

Did I love her? Of course I did! There was, and still is, nothing I wouldn’t do for her. Nothing. After her failed surgeries, primarily because the first surgeon was grossly incompetent, and the second was a coward who, IMHO, didn’t want to risk his precious stats, (The reason I will NEVER see a doctor again for the rest of my life…for any reason) I offered her oncologist any of my organs and tissues that might save her. Of course, it was a futile effort as she had a negative blood type, and I was positive, but I felt so helpless and needed to do something!

Love as we traditionally view it is a singular emotion. It produces endorphins. It creates that warm fuzzy feeling. It invokes images of passion and eroticism. Did we have that? Of course we did! You need only look at our four daughters to know this. It wouldn’t hurt to look at our emotional struggles, either. We each were able to unlock doors in the other’s psyche that held hidden monsters from our past (and present) that no other human (including ourselves) could, and either tame them, or slay them altogether. For her, she had abandonment fears stemming from her parent’s divorce. She had personal safety fears stemming from an incident I will not further discuss here. She had a huge problem with not feeling that she was ever good enough. Her biggest issue was an absolute refusal to “need” someone. There were others, of course, and over the years I was able to overcome most, if not all, of them. The issue with need, she confessed to me three weeks before she passed, was resolved in the past year as she realized how much she depended upon me as a caretaker, husband (in the truest sense of a husband being nurturer, etc.), friend, advocate…. Me? Well, my issues were legion. Still are…but she patiently and lovingly slayed those dragons of chauvinism, toxic masculinity, etc., and others she turned to my/our service…anger, the need to physically dissipate and displace that anger so I wouldn’t lash out at others…

Using the term love to describe our relationship just doesn’t suffice. We were companions and supported each other publicly at all times…but, if needed, would tell each other in private behind our door, that the other was either wrong or might want to consider the next step or alternatives. We reveled in each other’s accomplishments…degrees, roles on stage, professional successes from colleagues and community. We were there when the other needed and backed off when not needed, or when we felt by creating space the other would grow because of it. Up until the last two years of her life, she acted as my SAG constantly, but knew that, in addition to her feeling drained, I needed to gain independence as well – both for my involvement with RUSA as well as the cycling I was now doing during the day while she was at work. Neither of us actually suspected that I would need it now – that she would die first. We both expected me to be the one to go first, found on the side of the road somewhere as the result of an angry or distracted motorist.

We were each other’s refuge. There are countless disappointments, heartaches, and failures in the span of 35 years. Some personal. Some professional. Some marital. Some spiritual. When you find the one person that will comfort you, support you, help you get re-grounded and start forward again, you know you have the right one. This was established early on with the passing of our grandparents. I remember coming home one day after spending several hours in the practice room preparing for my upcoming senior recital – we wouldn’t own a cell phone for another 10 years – and my wife rushing out to greet me, holding one infant daughter in one arm and dragging the other behind her. She climbed in the car and told me that my mom had called and that my paternal grandmother was not expected to make it through the day. We hurried off and I am certain I sped the 100 miles to the nursing home – with her holding my hand the entire way. We got there just in time to see my grandmother being carried out on a gurney. I was crushed. She held me, and our daughters, while I shook and sobbed in grief and guilt. I did the same when her paternal grandmother had passed shortly after we were married, and again a few years later when her maternal grandmother passed and we were financially unable to return to Michigan for the funeral.

The important thing, however, is that being a refuge doesn’t mean that you simply provide a shoulder or a hug. When my father passed away ten years ago, it was a similar occurrence to my grandmother’s passing. No chance to say goodbye…we got the call late…we arrived far after he had been pronounced and the coroner called (he died at home). It was one of four deaths of close family members in 30 days. Yes I was shook. Yes she provided comfort. But later that fall my dog of 14 years developed inoperable cancer. We made the decision to put her to sleep and I was the one that did the injection….that was a huge mistake. It was also the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I felt as though God had placed a huge bull’s eye on my back and was using me as target practice. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. I knew I was slowly spiraling into a very dark place, but I couldn’t see the bottom and neither could I get hold of anything to stop the descent. Until she literally handed me a stick. Well, okay, she hit me over the head with a club.

She had observed me coaching and teaching for years and knew how I handled students and athletes in a similar situation. She grabbed hold of me one night just before Thanksgiving and spun me around to face her. She snapped that she hadn’t married a quitter. That our children still needed their father, not a wuss. In coaching parlance she ripped me a new one. And then she put her arms around me and told me that most importantly, she had to have her husband back…that she relied on MY strength because she was grieving the events of the last several months as well.

We were each other’s sounding board and editor. While neither of us were fond of the episodes of each other’s ranting and raving about work, school, the kids, the neighbors, our parents (let’s face it, I was far more the offender here)…we knew the other would listen and either say nothing, or would flat out tell the other they were wrong. We were, thankfully, honest with each other. If the ranter was in the wrong, a good bit of editing was proposed to correct the situation. She, of course, was far more diplomatic than I, and so I was the bigger beneficiary here!

We were each other’s muse. And we still are. As performers, the occurrences here were too numerous. As musicians, however, the most gratifying came just before her diagnosis. She had organized and written several arrangements for boom whackers, Orff instruments, etc., for her elementary students over the years. She had seen me compose and arrange for several years and admired the success I had working with composers and getting these things published. For her first concert directing a junior high choir, she decided to arrange a setting of “Silent Night” in English, German, and French. She didn’t have the training in theory or on the compositional software, however, so I tutored her and did a quick analysis of the chords so she could break things down. She based her work on an arrangement of “In the Garden” that I had done for our daughters to sing at my father’s funeral. Her setting is one of the best I have seen of this traditional work.

I know I am taking a risk by stating this, but late last fall I felt compelled to set John Donne’s “Abler Soul” segment from The Ecstasy for a duet. Over the next several weeks I felt my ideas gradually morph into a trilogy which incorporated parts of Diana Gabaldon’s “The Outlander” dialogue between Jamie and Claire, and Cynthia Bourgeault’s Love is Stronger Than Death. I realized she was working with me on this. I’ve always struggled with lyrics, which is why I specialized in arrangements. What I had originally written and set aside while I contemplated structure was rewritten within 24 hours….in a manner I had not considered, nor would have done on my own. Similarly, after I had finished the second piece, I was very dissatisfied with my accompaniment at the end – supposedly wedding bells. I attempted several different treatments and idioms, and none were better. I contacted friends who each then promised to give it some thought. I began the second piece (actually occurring first in the trilogy) and felt she wanted a couple of dance interludes inserted during the wedding ceremony. In my head, considering the text, I contemplated a recorder consort from the medieval period. When I came to that point, I literally felt her say “No. I want something from 18th century Scotland. A quadrille.” For crying out loud. I specialized in music history in undergrad and my first Master’s, but I had to look up the form to know what she was talking about. Yep, it was a popular dance form in the 18th century. BUT…it was an ABACABA form. I heard myself saying “Honey, you can’t do that in 8 measures. If we insert a 32 measure dance interlude twice in this piece, it will never be performed!” She responded quickly with “Who says each theme has to be 4 measures long? Why can’t you just do a one measure motive for each theme? You have three different melodic motives that are common to each piece.”

Damned if she wasn’t right. And so the piece is finished…with the shortest quadrille you will ever hear…but effective none the less. The best part was the opening church bell motive that I don’t remember writing, but sounded exactly like what I had in mind. It fixed the end of the second work and tied the two pieces together even more. I finished the trilogy today, and, once again, her role as the muse was present. I had originally planned on the final piece of the trilogy as being a fugue in the relative major key. Apparently, this is not what she had in mind. Lyrics were dropped, the key was indeed major, but only up a step, and rather than a fugue, it has more of a processional feel (think “Pomp and Circumstance”).The trilogy is complete and will be published under BOTH of our names, because it has elements of each of us. I have NEVER used some of the compositional devices used here…The piece will be premiered by a school in Phoenix, and will be performed by a professional ensemble in Scottsdale this Fall. I’m excited to offer this to schools in this area as well….with four exceptions!

We were each other’s stand-up comic. This will come as a shock to my children and her colleagues, but my wife could tell a fantastic dirty joke! For my part, I appreciated those, but more appreciated her laugh and snort. And the way her eyes twinkled when poking fun at someone. She, while verbally distancing herself from comments I would shout at the refs at a Red Wings game, for example, would always laugh out loud on the way home and rate my beratings. Her favorites were “Hey Ref, use some Preparation H! You’ll see better!” or “Hey Ref, that wasn’t hooking! Hooking is what your wife was doing on 8 mile a couple of hours ago!”

We belonged to each other. No, not in the possessive sense. In the sense that neither of us ever had to worry about the other straying. In the sense that neither of us ever really was going to quit. In the sense that we were comfortable with each other and were never ashamed of the other. In fact, I always felt like a king every single time we went out in public! Every. Single. Time. In that final interview a few weeks before she passed, she told me there were so many things that she had always been so proud of me for she couldn’t name them all. I can’t tell you what that means in months like this.

I know this post has not been about bikes, brews, or my grandchildren. I know these past few posts have focused on my grief. February is a hard month for widows and widowers. Even more complicated when the departed passed during February. Next post will be on bikes and brews, I promise!

This post is my Valentine for my wife. It’s the only Valentine I will give or get anymore. And I was a hopeless romantic! Saying merely “I loved her” doesn’t cut it. We were part of each other. We completed each other. The absence of her physically at my side has created an ache that goes to the very center of my being. Imagine a dull toothache that throbs with every heartbeat. Now imagine that never going away…no dentist can pull the tooth…no medicine removes the pain for more than an hour or two and no doctor can prescribe more of the medicine because doing so would kill you. The throbbing is there when you finally go to sleep at night…sometimes it wakes you up in the middle of the night…and it is there when you convince yourself you have to make it through another day. No. This isn’t love. It is something much deeper. And this Valentine’s Day I am so grateful for it. So grateful that she chose me.

Sometimes, you just know…..

The best education is one that teaches you…encourages you…to ask questions. I have said before that I have been the benefit of a world class education…BA, MA, MM, DMA…I’ve studied at some of the world’s finest institutions, with some of the leading professors and experts in the fields of music, theatre, humanities, history, education, policy analysis and formation, etc. – The University of Michigan, Boston University, The Julliard. Every single stop along the way I was taught to question everything. Everything. The truth of what I was reading/being told. The usefulness of the same. How any of it applied to the past, present, or future. And, most importantly, why.

As a cyclist, I am still learning what questions to ask. The first major bike purchase I made as an adult came in November of 1995. Before that point in time, I had only owned cheap, department store bikes that were heavy and normally mountain bikes with straight handlebars. I had no idea about fit, saddle position, weight, components, etc. I, like my wife, based a bike’s usefulness on appearance, and, number of gears available.

At that point in our lives, I was enjoying a bit of a physical renaissance. I had put on some weight in the late 80’s and ballooned from the 185 pounds I weighed when we got married up to about 260. In 1988 I started my career in education by accepting a job as a junior high wrestling coach. It got me physically active again, as I had learned to never ask anyone under my leadership to do anything that I wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t do myself. So I did all of the drills, conditioning, and other physical demands I asked of my wrestlers. Over the course of the next few years, the weight came off until I was back to within a few pounds of that weight again. That fall one of my paternal uncles became seriously ill. He had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a pernicious disease which he has fiercely battled over the last quarter century. We wanted to do something to help, and we took note that an organized, two day bike ride from Phoenix to Parker Dam, California, was being organized as a fundraiser to battle MS. Somehow, I knew this was something I wanted to do.

Unfortunately, I didn’t ask the right questions…like “should I? What physical demands is this going to place on me/my body? What kind of equipment is it going to require?” I did know that fundraising was going to be expected as a condition of registration. I knew that literally thousands of people were going to be taking part in the event, and that one of them was a professional cyclist who lived in the Valley and had already made quite a name for himself – Michael Secrest. I, like other people who rode bikes in the 80’s had followed with joy as Greg LeMond became the first American to win Le Tour de France in the late 80’s, but I followed his exploits in the sports pages – there literally was no television coverage of Le Tour in the US back then. So I didn’t/couldn’t appreciate the speed generated by, and the physical demands placed on, these phenomenal athletes. The fact that Secrest just a few years before had won the Race Across America (RAAM) – a 2,816 mile, time-chipped race from Huntington Beach, CA to Atlantic City, NJ – for the second time, finishing in a record time of 7 days, 23 hours and 16 minutes, really meant very little to me or my wife. What DID matter was that Secrest was a native of Flint, MI – her hometown – and she wanted to see me in action for the first time in our married lives against competitive athletes.

All we had at the moment were a pair of department store mountain bikes. To that point, I had been doing rides around the neighborhood and surrounding desert of between 25 and 35 miles. To be sure, these rides were relatively easy as there was little real climbing in that area of the Valley we lived in. My knees, however, had issues towards the end of these rides, and I knew the first stage of the “MS 150 Best Dam Bike Ride” was going to be a shade over 100 miles and would end with some major climbs out of the Valley and towards the Colorado River Plateau. I knew I would need a better bike. So we went shopping the night before, once I had finished my share of fundraising and knew I would be able to participate.

The shop was located just a few blocks from our house. We informed the shop owner, with all four of our daughters in tow, what I was doing and what we were looking for. I can’t tell you just how far his eyebrows were raised when we were finished, but I can tell you that to this day I never knew that eyebrows could recede into your hairline! He asked questions himself. What’s your longest bike ride to date? What kind of physical activity have you done in the last year or two? What is your athletic history like? How much do you weigh? What’s your height, inseam, and reach? Following our answers he started to round up a few bikes for me to try out and muttered something like, “I should have asked about your life insurance policy….”

The first bike was a brand new Diamondback carbon fiber bike. White. 20 speed. Light. Gorgeous. I started to get on it when I noticed the price tag and gulped. I embarrassingly had to inform him that our budget was much smaller than that. He then had me try out another bike, an aluminum one as I recall, also a 20 speed, new, light. This one was about half the price of the Diamondback, but still out of our price range. Once we cleared up what we COULD afford, he showed me a Centurion Accordo – a 1987 lower tier touring model that was 12 speeds and he had taken it in on trade. It had a price tag of $300, but, looking at our girls and noting that I was a teacher and my wife was finishing her education degree, he said he would cut the price by taking my cheap mountain bike on trade (he was just going to cannibalize the components, he said – I had no idea what that meant), and customize the Accordo and make sure it was ready to do the ride.

My wife and I loved the color scheme. Like all Centurion models of the mid and late 80’s it was a two-tone. In this case, blue and silver. It had ram handlebars, downtube friction shifters, handlebar brakes, and 27 inch Araya wheels. I believe the components were a Shimano RX gruppo. He had me climb on the bike while it was mounted to a trainer in his shop and adjusted the saddle height for me – something I didn’t previously know was a consideration. Then I took off around the parking lot. It was rush hour in Phoenix, and 59th Avenue and Bell Road is NOT a place, then OR now, you want to ride a bike on in those conditions. So he gave me a crash course on how to get into and out of the toe straps, shift gears and brake. The bike was smooth, and although significantly heavier than the other two I had looked at, was still the lightest bike I had ever owned by far. Pedaling it was smooth and enjoyable. No pain. But I felt very unsteady in the forward position with the ram style drop handlebars. We agreed to a price of $200, if he transferred my mountain bike handlebars to the Accordo. He threw in a pair of thorn guards (a hard tire liner that protects against tube puncture) – one for each tire. I added a purchase of mountain bike bar ends (an attachment that sticks out 90 degrees from the handlebars and allows you to change hand position) and a water bottle. He told me to take the family out for pizza next door while he made the swaps, adjustments, and added some extra cleaning and lube to get me ready for the race.

The details of how that ride went I shared in an earlier post, crash and all. Secrest finished the entire 190 miles before sundown on the first day. Despite the crash, I managed to finish the ride among the first 500 riders out of over 2500 – even with broken thumb and road rash. The following year, Secrest would set the world record for a 24 hour period by cycling 532.74 miles in a velodrome at Cal State University. I will say that that ride to California taught me how many questions I needed to ask. How many water stops? What kind of medical and SAG support is there? What is the pace expected? Is it a shotgun or individual start? How much climbing is there? It also taught me to ask questions about bike weight, fit, components, etc. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to learn what I was physically capable of and see/hear the admiration of my wife when she and the girls greeted me at the finish line in California!

By the way, I still have the Accordo. It served as my only bike for almost 17 years, and countless fundraising events for the MS Society, American Diabetes Association, American Cancer Society, etc. Our oldest daughter was so impressed with the event in ‘95 that the following spring, she took part in her very first bike ride for the ADA Tour de Cure in Scottsdale. She pedaled 25 miles on her own at the age of 11. My wife and her sisters pretty much followed her along the route while I pedaled the metric century route. She finished about an hour before I did. It was my turn to be so proud! The following year, our three oldest did the Tour de Cure along the Lake Michigan shoreline while my wife SAG’d them, and I did the century route. So proud of them all! We biked several times through their childhood. They had cheaper bikes, my wife still had her mountain bike (why we brought it from AZ I’ll never know!), and I rode the Accordo.

After my bariatric bypass, I knew I wanted to ride for causes again to regain my health and teach my students that community comes first. I knew that I probably should begin to look for another bike – a lighter bike. This time, though, I could afford one. After some research, I settled on a 1987 Centurion Dave Scott Ironman Expert. About three pounds lighter than the Accordo. Better components (Shimano 105). Still had ram style drop handlebars, down tube friction shifters, and was a 14 speed. I was stunned when my average speed went from 14 mph to nearly 17 mph.

The following fall, when I was forced into teaching a double overload – effectually a single year, $32,000 raise – I said to myself “If they’re stupid enough to pay me that kind of money, I’m stupid enough to spend it.”

Armed with cash, and a series of well-informed questions, I began the search for a top end bike. Centurion had been bought out by Diamondback in the 90’s, then collapsed. So I had to find something else if I wanted new and ultra light. I was looking for fit, body geometry (determines body position while riding – some bikes’ geometry stretches your body into a long and low position, while others put you more upright), componentry, weight, road absorption, etc. We traveled to several retailers and tried most major brands – Cannondale, Raleigh, Giant, Bianchi, and Trek. The one that I liked the best was a Trek Domane. It was similar to many of the others that I had test ridden, but additionally it had a dampening system (not shock absorber in the manner of mountain bikes) that made the ride more comfortable. Before I could tell the shop owner that I would be paying cash for the bike and while I was out test riding it, he ran my driver’s license through Trek credit for preliminary approval. When I got back, he asked to see more ID and informed me what he had done by saying, “According to this report, you’re dead!” I informed him that my father had just passed away a couple of years prior, that we had the same name, and how dare he run a credit check without my authorization? He informed me it was a matter of procedure when loaning out a $6000 bicycle. My wife and I left, but I noted the model and size. The bike was the closest thing I had found to what I wanted to be my dream bike, and I made up my mind that I would find another Trek dealer to purchase it from.

The next week, we were informed by my local club that a dealer had just agreed to be a club sponsor and was giving special discounts to club members. He was a Specialized dealer and we headed over. I knew immediately. The body geometry was so comfortable, the fit was so perfect, that it felt as though I was pedaling through air. The bike was four pounds lighter than my Dave Scott, about $1000 price difference for each of those four pounds! After a round of adjustments, I laid out the cash and I pedaled that bike the 44 miles home on an early fall afternoon. The only discomfort I felt was the sweat rolling down my face. Not from the exertion, but from the sun and warmth of the 80+ degree late afternoon. I was shocked again when I got home and discovered my average speed had now moved from 14 to 17 to 21 mph! Not in the league of a Mike Secrest, but definitely a pretty fair amateur speed for 44 miles! Sometimes it pays to ask the right questions. And sometimes, it’s too late.

Over the past two years, I have kicked myself in the arse for not asking the questions I should have of my mother and paternal grandmother. These were two of the strongest women I ever knew. My grandmother raised a family of nine children, while simultaneously housing a daughter and her husband after my grandfather died in 1942. Three of my uncles enlisted and fought in the Pacific in World War II. Grandma never remarried. Never dated. Yet she managed to keep a roof over all of their heads despite the fact that my grandfather left almost no life insurance and had only worked in low-skilled, hourly jobs. Grandma lived for another 41 years without her partner. Similarly, my mom lived seven years after my dad passed. Due to some financially irresponsible advice from a family member, she was forced to leave her home of 55 years six years after his passing. It is no surprise to me that she passed within a year after we moved her to another home.

Missed opportunities to learn the source of their strength. How did they deal with the loneliness? How did they deal with that ache late at night and first thing in the morning? What memories carried them through? What goal or goals kept them going? Was there something they learned during their marriages that they felt they should pass down to help us in the tough times? Sometimes it pays to ask the right questions. And, sometimes, you just know.

Thirty-seven years ago tomorrow night (February 12th, 1983) we went to our first dance together. We had gone on our first date on January 15th – we saw “Tootsie” and, when I dropped her off at her home and turned away to go, she spun me around and kissed me! I was shocked (I never kissed on the first date) and so was her younger, 15 year old brother, who was peeking through the curtains at us! This dance was going to be our first, all day long, romantic date. I had already begun to develop some serious feelings for her. She was funny, highly intelligent, more talented than I (see last weeks’ post with a video of her singing), and stunningly beautiful. She was also kind and loving to everyone she interacted with. Dancing, though? It was my weakest area. I was terrified and didn’t know how she would respond to my klutziness! She, after all, had taken years and years of dance as a kid (one of the first things she told me when I noted how gracefully she moved on stage). She was teaching an aerobics class in her complex every night. God, she was stunning in that leotard and tights! I took the class just so I could enjoy the view, and I wasn’t the only one!

The dance was a disaster at first! She was so damned beautiful she glowed when I picked her up. She was wearing an intoxicating perfume – at least it seemed like it to me at the time – and I couldn’t get my head straight. I couldn’t get my sense of rhythm or beat, and, after a few attempts at faster dances I asked her if we could sit down. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, only making matters worse, as I felt the shame. I knew I had blown it. She saw. She always saw. She left her chair, came over, put her arms around my neck, sat on my lap, looked me in the eye, and said “It’s ok. Really. I love you.” At that moment, the DJ spun his first ballad – Lionel Richie’s “Truly.”  We got up, danced, and I knew. I still know. That became the song we first danced to at our wedding reception ten weeks later. It was always our song.

I didn’t pop the question for another few weeks. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact date. But I do remember the exact date we both knew because it was Valentine’s weekend. And I know she knew then, because she kept these for our entire marriage. Sometimes, you just know.

Valentine’s Day is horrible for a widow/widower. I haven’t looked at my phone or been online other than to post these updates in over a week. Between her dog passing, the anniversary of her death, the anniversary of our first dance, and Valentine’s Day…just too much. But love is indeed stronger than death. Sometimes you have to ask the right questions to find out if you are the right fit. And, again, sometimes you just know. Truly.

Where do I begin?

January 1971. An 11 year old boy snuck into his father’s room after school to stare in fascination at the calendar he had hanging on the wall. I – ooops…HE….(hahahahaha) had first observed the object of his current fascination a week before when bringing his dad a cold bottle of 7-up on a Saturday night while he was listening to the radio and reading. Unsure of whether or not his dad had forgotten the calendar was there, the lad couldn’t get those pictures out of his mind! So, over the next week, he snuck into the room to try and burn the images into his mind! Well, maybe THAT’S where I developed my photographic memory! (Of course it was me!) Regardless, THAT was the week my fascination with the opposite sex began…oh, Miss June!

Oddly enough, it was also about the same time I began to be prepared for the heartbreak that comes with the territory. In early 1971, the hottest movie of the year hit our local theatres. The commercials were all over the airwaves…the song was equally omnipresent, and, in my opinion, Ali MacGraw was just as beautiful as Miss June! Love Story is one of the greatest chick flicks of all time and inspired several imitations (Steel Magnolias for example) and spoofs (see Family Guy and the “Chick Cancer” episode). I didn’t actually get to see this movie for another 13 years until it came out on video disc (no, not DVD…video disc – look them up!), but it was one of the first movies my wife and I rented for our new technology. I surprised her by singing words to the instrumental theme. She didn’t know they existed. I, however, lived in a house where music was king! Dad loved his country and bluegrass, mom loved big band, jazz, swing, and gospel, my oldest sister loved Broadway, and my brothers enjoyed rock. Andy Williams took the “Love Story Theme” to #1 on the Easy Listening chart, and as high as #9 on the Billboard Hot 100!

How the hell was I supposed to know this movie and song would define my life?

Where do I begin
To tell the story of how great a love can be
The sweet love story that is older than the sea
The simple truth about the love she brings to me
Where do I start

With her first hello
She gave new meaning to this empty world of mine
There’d never be another love, another time
She came into my life and made the living fine
She fills my heart

She fills my heart with very special things
With angels’ songs, with wild imaginings
She fills my soul with so much love
That anywhere I go I’m never lonely
With her around, who could be lonely
I reach for her hand, it’s always there

How long does it last
Can love be measured by the hours in a day
I have no answers now but this much I can say
I know I’ll need her ’till the stars all burn away
And she’ll be there

How long does it last
Can love be measured by the hours in a day
I have no answers now but this much I can say
I know I’ll need her ’till the stars all burn away
And she’ll be there

Even more fitting is the fact that the brilliant poet who wrote the lyrics for this song, Francis Lai, was born the same week as I, but 28 years earlier, and died just nine months after my wife. Damn.

Yes, I’m having a rough week. After Ginger passed, I did go out and ride. I rode for five consecutive days, (my first rides outdoors in over two weeks) running my streak of consecutive months with at least one ride of a metric century (62 miles long) to 22 months on Saturday in brutal cold and wind. I thought it would help. It didn’t.

I took to the treadmill as well, running two miles every day for over a week at increasing speeds. My cardio vascular system and muscle tone responded well. My mind did not.

My kegerator is empty because the three Scotch Ales I normally keep in stock are out of production at the moment. Probably a good thing. Instead, I have turned to the remaining bottled store I have in my basement – Robert the Bruce from 3 Floyds in Indiana, Brewers Reserve from Central Waters in Wisconsin, Backwoods Bastard from Founders in Michigan, Sheep Shagger from Tyranena in Wisconsin, 90 Shilling from BelHaven in Scotland….and, of course, some 14 year old Single Malt Glenfiddich Scotch Whiskey and some 4 year old Templeton Rye Whiskey from Templeton, Iowa (a distillery I once visited on RAGBRAI). Of course I didn’t drink them all at once, nor more than three in a single day. Regardless, there was no respite to be had in my bottled friends either. Apparently my tolerance has significantly increased, or my pain is off the charts. I believe it is a combination of both.

On Saturday, at 4:12 pm we were in the middle of dinner, trying to celebrate her life on the second anniversary of her passing. I literally had to choke down my food, recalling those final moments as she gasped for breath, fighting to the last. Recalling the final “I love you” she spoke to each of us over the last week. Recalling Ginger’s final moments as she rolled over and kissed my face, thanking me for releasing her from pain.

My parents are dead. My grandparents are dead. All but five of my aunts and uncles (out of 26!) are dead. My dogs are dead. And my wife…my best friend…my comforter in chief is dead. Who the HELL is going to release me from my pain?

As a cyclist, I learned to use cue sheets – a typed out guide to where you are going, with distances and turn by turn directions marked to make sure you get there. I then learned to use GPS on my Garmin or smartphone to check my position and the best way to get to where I wanted to go. Invaluable tools. In the past nine years since I started cycling “hardcore” I have mashed out nearly 51000 miles. I have logged nearly 1100 rides. In all of that mileage and all of those rides, I literally got lost precisely….once. Once.

In 2014 my wife and I were proud to travel to the UK to help plan, organize, and take part in our daughter’s wedding to a lad from Newcastle. We spent well over a month there and actually got out to ride in between times. My God it was marvelous! I was able to ride around my ancestors historical holdings in Scotland and North Umberland. We spent a night in a castle my ancestors built and VERY distant relatives still own – turned now into a Bed and Breakfast overlooking a historical battlefield! I have pictures of me carrying her across the threshold and reminding her that I had promised to give her a castle someday!

One of those off days, I left an inn we were staying at and asked my wife to meet me at Hadrian’s Wall, approximately 65 miles to the southwest. Soon after I left, my phone lost signal…no big deal, as I knew signal was weak in that area. What I DIDN’T plan on was losing GPS support. Approximately 15 miles out of that rural village my Garmin started spinning. I lost all support! The road was narrow. There were few signs, and NOTHING that led to a major landmark. In rural England, the country roads are based on old livestock paths. They twist, and turn, changing names and sometimes come back onto themselves. It did not help that it was nearly mid-day, so using the sun as a guide was of no use. There was no official language barrier, but finding anyone to get directions from was problematic, as there were no businesses out there, and most residents were either farming, or employed elsewhere. When I was able to find a soul or two, that Geordie accent had the effect of speaking a foreign language, however.

Eventually, more than five hours later, I found a sign pointing towards an abandoned Roman fort along the wall. I reached back and found that my phone was now getting signal. I checked to find several texts now appearing from my very concerned wife. I messaged her back, explaining where I would meet her…approximately 15 miles to the west of where we had originally planned! I started out for the fort, and within a mile or so, the Garmin sorted itself out. I have NEVER felt so alone. NEVER felt so lost. NEVER been at more of a loss for direction and future. Until now.

As I near my 60th trip around the sun, I ask myself “why?” We had a fantastic 35 years together. We made a life. We made a home. I FOUND that love that I had always craved since hearing that song and reading that book 48 years ago!

The answer, simply, is we are in a VERY different world (or at least I am). 48 years ago we also had a criminal in the White House. But we had a Congress that had the stones to stand up for what was right. That president also had a hit list of political enemies. Funny, because today the POTUS FINALLY announced to the media something I believe when he said that “everybody is a threat” to him. Nixon also lied. Nixon also lashed out against the media. But the Congress as a whole STILL stood up to him as a collective and drove him from office. As a society, we had begun the drive to turn back the dark clouds of racism and hatred following the riots of 1968. Now?? The rise in racism and hate speech has more recalled the days of the 1920’s with the rise of the KKK as our president passively looks to assign blame on both sides of the racial divide. As a society in 1972, we were beginning to open our borders to those fleeing oppression in Eastern Bloc countries, South East Asia, and Central America. Now? We have begun to be the xenophobes that seemingly echo Senator Joseph McCarthy and his HUAC! “Are you now, or have you ever been a Mexican/Muslim/Democrat???”

My wife and I became teachers to change the world. This week I feel we lost. I feel we sacrificed our performance dreams for nothing. She had the voice of an angel. She ALWAYS had more talent than I…I was just better educated. I feel she gave up her dreams for nothing…and I am to blame. The clip below shows us performing at our oldest daughter’s wedding 11 years ago. Yep. I was fat. Just goes to show how much of an angel she really was, because she literally stuck with me thru thick and thin! This was two years before my bariatric bypass and three years before she started announcing to everyone that she felt like she was cheating on me with ME!

So, I’m sorry. It has been a horrible, no good, very bad week. Death. Taxes. I can’t even do my effing taxes without help (and there is none that I can afford – and TurboTax isn’t helping). Student loan renegotiation. Failed impeachment due to refusal to perform your constitutional duty. Continued gun violence. Continued sexual assault on women and little children. A former district that seems hell bent on destroying the legacy my wife and I built by condemning their current students to mediocrity.

I have no idea what the hell I am doing here anymore. I feel as though I have been blindfolded, transported to Outer Mongolia and summarily deposited. No phone. No GPS. No credit cards/money. A language barrier when/if I do find other souls (I can speak and read several languages, but none of them are Asiatic!). No car. No bike (the horror!). Not a single soul to talk to that understands or even really cares.

That, in essence, is the problem with grief. “I’m so sorry. But hang in there. It will get better in time.” Bullshit! It’s been two years. The pain is as wrenching now as it was when I screamed “No” as she took her last breath. “I’m so sorry. I’m here if you want to talk. Just call.” For crying out loud. I struggle very damned day to get out of bed, then struggle with the thought of going to bed at the end of the day. You think I have the energy or the courage to call anyone? Especially when they can’t be bothered to phone/e-mail/PM/text me???? Seriously, no one going through this feels like they can make that call because when or if we do, often the response makes us feel as though we are a burden. I WILL NOT BE A BURDEN!

So that’s it. Thanks for bearing with me while I bare my soul.

Now it begins. Now it starts…

One of my favorite past times has always been reading. My dad has a book in his hand when I picture him in my mind’s eye, it is always the same….laying down on the couch in a pocket tee and his work pants, with a Mickey Spillane, Doc Savage, or Nick Carter novel in his hands, and the Grand Ole Opry blaring from the stereo. My parents were more than happy to indulge my own interests, believing it (rightly so) to be a method of bettering myself through education. I shared his interest in Doc Savage to the point that I own one of the very few complete collections of the original pulp magazines that sported those stories that exist in the world. That interest started as a nine year old when I began to read the Bantam paperback reprints of those stories (with some incredible cover paintings by James Bama that only helped fuel a young boy’s hero worship!). But I branched out swiftly. As a family, we typically spent every weekend from mid-April to mid-October on the road camping somewhere, and the entire month of July when the factory my parents worked for shut down during maintenance and updates. While we enjoyed fishing, swimming, and other activities, we were also told to bring along other things to do to keep ourselves entertained when it rained. For me, that meant books. I read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and so many other classics on these outings during rainstorms pounding on the canvas of our tent, by the light of a Coleman lantern – all by the age of 9! By the time I was through high school, my repertoire had expanded to include authors like Tolstoy, Somerset Maugham, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and started to include poetry by Frost, Keats, Yeats, Whitman, and others. Over the years since my wife sometimes snorted in derision when she noticed me reading for pleasure academic works on philosophy, history, hermeneutics, and spirituality. Life got in the way a couple of years ago and my reading all but stopped as I shifted primarily to caretaker for her, and then our dog Jasper shortly after her death.

After Jasper’s passing on Thanksgiving weekend of 2018, I once again started reading. While she had light heartedly poked fun at my pleasure reading list, I did the same for hers. She mostly read what I termed historical and sci fi “smut” novels! One of her favorite series that I particularly took exception with – out of ignorance, and what I now realize is a bit of toxic masculinity – was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. I began with that series in an effort to understand a part of my beautiful wife that I had ignored. And thru it, I began to connect with a side of her that I wish we had explored and enjoyed together. Over the last year I have also reconnected with my expanded interests in historical nonfiction – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, for example – and, especially, poetry such as the works of John Donne (see my Abler Soul post of a several weeks ago). This week, however, one of my recently discovered favorite poets has been front and center in my transitioning life. Hermann Hesse was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century and authored this poem, which has become the center of my life this week:

Stages

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
 Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

Two years ago tomorrow (February 1st) at 4:12 pm she died in my arms and my life as I knew it began to unravel. Yesterday, a precision and surgical strike took place to drive home the real meaning of Hesse’s words. My beautiful bride’s dog Ginger succumbed to cancer and left me to join her. Last night I spent the first night totally alone in a home I lived in for the first time since 1981. The silence was deafening. The lyrics of One Hand, One Heart from “West Side Story” came immediately to mind. Not the romantic promise of the modern Romeo and Juliet, but rather the important reminder that Hesse mentions above of transition moments throughout life’s stages. I will be alone for the remainder of my physical journey in life. Totally alone. “Well, why not get another dog?” you ask. For the same reason I will never date another woman…it wouldn’t be fair. I cannot date because I would be constantly comparing whomever I would be spending time with to her. I would feel like I was cheating on my wife with this other woman. Thanks to her, I have realized over the last two years that she made me a better man than to treat another woman that way. It’s not that she would want me to be alone – she explicitly feared she hadn’t prepared me for life after her and wanted me to find someone. I just have come to know that I don’t need or want anyone else and that by attempting to give in to such curiosity would be to treat another woman in a manner that I now abhor. A partner should be the principal focus of your attention. That is something I cannot give. Similarly, another dog would deserve my presence and care. My lifestyle over the past two years took me away from the dogs for hours at a time…sometimes weeks at a time as I went on bike tours. This summer I am planning on a 4200 mile, 60 day bike trek across country. Not fair to a dog when I would have to find someone else to care for them for such an extended period. “Why not take the dog with you?” Because the only way that is feasible is with one of those little yappy dogs. I can’t stand yappy dogs! No way am I lugging a Labrador through Glacier National park on my bike. Not sure the bike would remain upright at the speed I would be forced to take towing my gear AND an 80 pound dog on those climbs!

So, today, now it begins. Now the rest of my life starts. Now I have to find another watering place on life’s journey. My meditation over the past several months has involved extensive time with Cynthia Bourgeault’s Love is Stronger Than Death. In this fantastic work and study of spirituality, Bourgeault speaks of her love with a man that mentions we enjoy several “watering places” in life’s journey. Focusing on positive moments and memories, we tend to enjoy these oasis places and metaphorically milk them for energy along our path. He cautioned, however, that we may spend too much time in these watering places out of fear for moving forward, without certainty of where and when we will find our next watering place, never realizing that all of our watering places are interconnected by one massive, underlying source of water. As a cyclist, this goes against the grain. I have been on rides where I either forgot to bring a water bottle, could not find a watering place, or simply went too far without a drink or food. My first ODRAM (One Day Ride Across Michigan) was nearly abandoned when, at the 120 mile mark I had been out of water for some time, there was no water stop remaining on the route, and my wife and daughter were at lunch. I was shaking…sucking wind…and had at that point ridden 15 miles farther than I had ever ridden in a single day’s ride in my life – with another 40 miles to go.

Bourgeault’s love was correct however. The water spot sprang up to catch me in my time of need. My wife and daughter showed up soon after, and I climbed off the bike for a few minutes to collect myself while they cared for me. Literally filling up my physical and spiritual water bottles. My daughter pulled her mountain bike off the back of the car and joined me for the final 40 miles. To that point, I had been averaging almost 21mph. What she did by pacing me on her mountain bike at a much slower 13-14mph, was EXACTLY what my body and spirit needed. We had a much more enjoyable experience and weekend after that. Similarly, five years ago, I rode in El Tour de Tucson – a 110 mile time chipped race – for the benefit of a charity organization that supported a cause near and dear to my family as well as the son of a former student. I knew I would never have a chance at a podium finish, but they had podium, gold, silver, bronze, and “participation” award levels for the thousands of cyclists taking part. I wanted to finish in the silver level as an inspiration to those I rode for, so I did the entire race on a single water bottle in almost 80 degree heat – a dry heat, as people like to point out, but the operative word there for a cyclist using only a single water bottle is DRY! I arrived at the finish line with about 15 minutes to spare for a silver finish, in the top 25 percent of all racers (including the pros), in the top 10 percent of all racers in my age division, and, of course, shaking like a palm frond in hurricane season. Again, however, I was refreshed when my wife called and expressed pride and love for me as well as in the feat…and connected me with the former student and her son who was literally aglow. He now has the medal I was given. I now have that watering place to return to when needed.

This past two years I have been trying to learn that lesson my wife lived and was so sad that I hadn’t….what Bourgeault calls “last year’s language.” This is when we tend to cling to our needs and life patterns to the detriment of inner growth. When we literally embalm those people and things in our lives that we cherish by our clinging and not allowing them to grow. This, of course, is the opposite of love. As a couple, we had started to overcome this about four years prior to her diagnosis, but, like all couples, continued to struggle through this until just a few days before she passed – when all I wanted was for her to be free. As a person, however, I continuously struggled through the last year’s language problem…getting frustrated when I felt things were defining me negatively, such as my inability to meet mileage goals on my bike(s), or financial problems, or family issues….This year, Bourgeault (and TS Eliot and Hesse) has truly helped me focus on the futility of last year’s language while concentrating on the present.

I haven’t ridden outside for over two weeks, and my mileage in October and this month were woefully short of what I had hoped to accomplish. But it’s okay. I had more important tasks to rise to. Caring for those you love…spending time…QUALITY time…with them, is never a mistake and will most assuredly refill your water bottle and leave the oasis point indelibly stamped on your life’s roadmap. This is something I want my children, and grandsons, to know and live. Never spend too long at one watering spot, as there will be others along the journey. Always continue to move forward and don’t become complacent. Sometimes you need that inner growth that comes from reading and expanding your horizons – just like a camel needs his humps!

As a coach, and as a competitive music teacher, I always taught my athletes and students the importance of understanding that last lesson. One of my favorite sayings that most of my teams and classes took to heart was that whoever told you practice makes perfect LIED TO YOU! Practice makes permanent. The only thing that makes perfect is PERFECT PRACTICE. Slow down. Focus on fundamentals. Get it right first and foremost. Then speed it up until you can do it better than the other people you are likely to come up against. Even then, there is ALWAYS going to be somebody out there who is better than you. More committed than you. This is the nature of human existence. Achilles had Hector. Saul had David. Grant had Lee. Custer had Sitting Bull. McEnroe had Connors. Palmer had Nicklaus. Evart had Navratilova….

I refuse to mourn the time I supposedly lost on my bike the last month because I, and Ginger, needed that time to transition. I woke up to a memory this morning on my social media account. Six years ago, I had posted the meme below to capture the relationship between my wife and her dog. What a reunion that must have been for them yesterday!

Again…I have rediscovered my love for poetry this past year…Donne, Eliot, Hesse, the Carmina Gadelica, and especially Rumi. Today and tomorrow I mourn and celebrate simultaneously. Yes, Scotch Ales will be flowing freely at my house for the next 48-72 hours. I mourn leaving one watering hole, filled with trepidation and fear for the unknown path that lies ahead. I know I will die alone…probably on a road side somewhere. But this poem by Rumi

There is no salvation for the soul
but to fall in Love.
Only lovers can escape
out of these two worlds.
This was ordained in creation.
Only from the heart
can you reach the sky

And the following setting by Carrie Grossman have helped me realize that I need to focus on next year’s language. That my watering holes are all interconnected by a constant stream underground of her – of OUR – love. That just as Vera Lynn expressed in 1943 “We’ll meet again.” Fly my beloveds! Fly!

"Second thoughts make liars of us all" and other useless high school remnants

What the hell does she mean? This crazy old battle axe has really lost it this time, and now I’m down to forty minutes to concoct a two page response to her craziness. Old people just don’t get it….oh, wait….

We had just finished reading Sophocles’ Antigone in my high school sophomore English and grammar class the week before. I was having a difficult time adjusting to Mrs. Gladys Youngs’ teaching style. She was about five feet, four inches, built like a Panzer tank, and came across that way in her drive to educate us in the college prep track. We had a vocabulary test every Friday in which we had to spell, define, and utilize 25 new words in a cogent sentence. We had grammar tests at least every other week, emphasizing everything from sentence structure, verb conjugation, and parts of speech to punctuation. We read poetry to analyze subtext – Ozymandius comes to mind. We read Greek tragedies by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. We read classic literature such as Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The most draining, and terrifying, however, was the Wednesday essay. Every Friday as we would leave class, she scrawled a topic on the chalkboard. Every Wednesday we were to turn in a two page written response to her assigned topic. There was no minimum word count – no one ever DARED pull the typical stunts on Gladys – you know, large writing, wide margins, etc. She was one of the singular most powerful women in the community and was never afraid of making phone calls. She had been teaching at my high school long enough that I was convinced Moses gave her the Ten Commandments for proofreading before disseminating them to the Israelites!

The topic in question, due after my lunch period that day, was “Man’s Inhumanity to Man.” To be fair, I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought over the weekend. I had a wrestling tournament on Saturday, Dad and I had gone ice fishing on Sunday and I spent most of Sunday night trying to get feeling back into my extremities. Then there was musical rehearsal for Oklahoma on Monday and Tuesday night. Procrastination had always been a skill of mine, but now I was in serious trouble. I remember the panic as I snuck into her vacant classroom to try and generate two pages during my lunch period (I was a wrestler – we NEVER ate lunch!), and, in the middle of it, feeling that I was being beset upon by this woman, and the school. Snippets of Antigone railing against the injustice of Creon against her brother….bits of Sydney Carton as I read him (we read aloud in class) “I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me,”….and it somehow weirdly seemed to mesh with the fall of Saigon and what we were learning in government class about Wounded Knee, My Lai, and the Civil Rights movement. I did not know that this quote, taken from Robert Burns’ “Man Was Made to Mourn” (1784), was quoted by Dr. King. But I did know the last “White Only” drinking fountain signs at a supermarket in Grand Rapids had just been torn down within the last year.

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, or anything other than the pen flowing out from my mind and my hand. When the lunch bell rang, I was scribbling the finishing touches. When it rang again to announce the beginning of class, the essay was finished and I turned it in with all the others. It was a first and only draft – no corrections – no deletions – and, most importantly, no spelling or grammatical errors. Gladys graded our work on a multi-tiered scale, with spelling and grammar each counting for ten percent of the overall total. She was ruthless that way.

I’ll bet you think that I mention the paper because I got an “A” on it, right? Wrong! Oh, you must have failed then, due to procrastination and cramming too much in in 40 minutes? No. I actually got a B+ on that paper. It was my highest grade from her on an essay to that point in the year. Gladys had scribbled down in the margin at the end “Finally, something from your heart. Something that is connected and makes sense. You just made some connections that didn’t altogether make sense with the evidence you provide. You should think about becoming a lawyer.”

I had always written well. I had also always had a pretty vivid and active imagination, so everything that I had written up until that point had been fiction. I had won a short story contest the year before with a twenty page tale about a family on vacation, driven off road by a gang of motorcyclists. The father leads them to shelter in a cave, and, as he explores the cave, he falls into a pit of rattlesnakes. It is then up to his teenage son to save him, and get the family to safety. Other stories I had written included cave man time travel (closely similar to Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Eternal Savage), evil Nazis plotting to enslave the world, etc. All inspired by what I was reading at the time…mostly old pulp reprints of “Doc Savage,” “The Shadow,” “John Carter,” and other hero stories that featured a social outcast who developed his intellect and used his physical strength to save the planet, save the girl, punish evildoers, and so on.

This essay, however, turned the tide. It proved to me that my ability to use language was not necessarily because I had a good imagination. Instead, what I did here was analyze, process, synthesize, and make meaningful connections that applied to my life, as well as life in general. Little did I know then that it would form the basis for my dissertation research. But it did show me that the best way to change the attitudes of those around me was to persuade, by building a case.

The next year, I joined our school newspaper and learned how to write succinctly, using specifics. An art which I have long since abandoned, some of my family and former professors would say! It also taught me the value of asking the right questions and how to follow those questions up to get to the real truth of the matter. This, in turn, helped me to learn to be persistent and develop a list of questions/issues for further probing, or dismiss if the narrative led in a different direction. By the way…what has happened to these traits of a true journalist? Why are today’s reporters allowed to get away with asking softball questions of politicians, business leaders, sports figures, etc.? “How did it feel when you came from 10 points down with three minutes to go in the game? What does it mean to you?” Seriously? You have nothing better to ask, like why did you make that specific play call? What did you see in their defense that made you choose that play? Or how about forcing a politician to specifically answer a question, and if they refuse, call them out on it? Ugh!

Anyway, these abilities closely aligned with my burgeoning imagination that was also being developed by my musical theatre pursuits.  In college, I continued to work on school papers, but my biggest area of interest was, of course, musical theatre. I took every form of interpretive course I could. Lessons in Stanislavski acting technique took my imagination and attention to detail to heights that paid dividends, not only on stage, but in regular classrooms as well. During my junior year at The University of Michigan, I took a Shakespeare class. The final assignment was to develop a ten page paper (by now there were word counts and margins and point size to deal with!) that presented an insight for a character in one of the plays we had covered, and provide an in depth study on how that character impacted the story development. I chose to argue that Polonius had schemed to have Hamlet fall in love with Ophelia, setting up control of the throne for Polonius should something tragically go wrong. I further argued that he had schemed to break up the marriage between Hamlet’s parents and have Hamlet’s father murdered. I knew it was a stretch, but the professor enjoyed the paper tremendously. He pulled me aside after the course was finished and asked what I had received in the second semester English composition course all freshmen were required to take. When I told him that I hadn’t yet taken the class because I transferred in from another university, he laughed and said “Well, don’t bother!” And he escorted me to the records department and waived the requirement for me.

This, of course, only enabled my excitement to see conspiracy theories everywhere! Within two years, I had written, and published, non-fiction research projects that outlined the impact the Florentine Camerata had on the Medici court in 16th century Florence – as well as the intrigue that played a role in the excommunication of Galileo for heresy. This was preceded by works which explored how Tolkien’s work was influenced by Wagner, which was influenced by the Viking mythology, which was descended from tales traced to the Baltic, which could be further traced back to the Visigoths as they migrated from the Steppes of Central Asia over 2500 years ago, interacting with, and adapting/assimilating various legends and myths from cultures along the way.

I had found my voice….sort of. But there was no place to use it. Other than for my beautiful wife, who at this point began her own college completion journey – but with three girls to nurture and care for. She hated writing. Always. Had developed some sort of a block, which I think came from being forced to journal in the middle of her parent’s divorce. She literally could only begin to write if she had consumed a wine cooler or two. Sometimes, not even then, so she turned to me for help. I would take her notes and synthesize them to put together a paper for her. Her longest required paper was 7 pages – took me about two hours, where she had been agonizing over it for more than a week. She read it, made a few changes to fit her verbiage style, and submitted. She felt guilty, of course, until I pointed out that it was her support that enabled me to get through undergrad, so I was just using my expertise to help her do the same.

Graduating from college with a degree in music education at the height (or depth) of one of the most serious economic downturns to ever hit the State of Michigan (1987) left me with few options. Nobody was hiring music teachers back then. Indeed, most schools were eliminating choir, band, orchestra, drama….

It was out of desperation that I finally turned to an employment agency and convinced them to send me out to a newspaper for an interview. I covered the circumstances of that job in an earlier post, but let me say here that it again renewed the fire of asking questions…but now coupled with a deep desire to right some wrongs. I developed a column, eventually, and won a Press Association award for a human interest story I did on a tiny baby, born prematurely to a very young set of parents who were unemployed and without health insurance. I told their story by interspersing details and circumstances with brief passages from the mother’s diary. The story was picked up by the wire service. The family soon after received all of the help they needed.

Unfortunately, sometimes conspiracy theories are not just theories. I uncovered a massive toxic chemical dumping program from a local manufacturing company. After investigation, and refusal of the company president to respond, I informed him that I was going to have to print the story without his version. He informed ME that the story would never be printed in the local paper. I wrote the story, submitted it to the typesetter, and was fired the next day. Turned out the manufacturer was also a part owner of the newspaper….no longer a silent partner! And my story didn’t run until a couple of weeks later. After a local television station did an expose on the dumping. After said television station received an anonymous tip about what was going on.

So back to education it was. By now the economy was on the rebound, and schools were hiring music teachers again, thanks to educational reforms that insisted music and the arts are core subjects. Unfortunately, for my students, they received a teacher that always believed in making connections across the curriculum and life in general. So they all had to write. Every year. And I graded them just as Gladys graded us. Much to the chagrin of several parents over the years. Some of them insisted I was not an English teacher and had no business correcting their baby’s grammar, spelling, syntax….One parent went so far as to suggest, in front of her daughter, that if I wanted to be an English teacher, I should put in for a transfer from music (she had no idea of the certification requirements, of course). The daughter, panicking, snapped “Mom! NO!” The mother turned and asked why – not politely, and making it clear that she felt she knew better than her daughter. “Because (he) grades harder than the AP English teacher and catches more stuff. We can’t not graduate because we fail choir, but they can hold us back if we don’t pass English!” End of argument!

This is, in essence, the failure of our educational system today. Not that we don’t teach them what they need to know, but rather that we fail to insist that they master it, apply it, and transfer that knowledge to other areas. In my classes, when we sang sonnets, my students learned sonnet form and I required them to write one. Why did they not learn this in English? In my classes, when my students sang a coffin song, they learned about societal traditions regarding death. When they sang a song in another language or from a particular text, they learned all I could teach them about the source and they were assigned to write an essay applying the universal characteristic expressed in that song to their own life. For final exams, essays were assigned (as 50% of the final exam grade) that required them to address physiological processes involved in singing and how their lifestyle had impacted their abilities that semester. Or how historical events shaped the composer or the lyrics of a selected piece from their last concert. Topics were written on the white board (we have evolved now!) the week before final exams. The students were told they could think about it, jot down notes on a 3×5 card, and do all the research they wanted ahead of time. But the essay was to be written in class on the day of the final exam. Yep. I was a hard ass!

This is why blogging is so important to me now. While I am very good at interpreting a script, I stink at improvisation. Always have. Even jazz. Especially jazz. Love listening to it. Hate performing it. Similarly, I can’t just get up and extemporaneously speak. There has to be a plan. I know I could never go see a therapist about what I am going through. Writing helps me work through this. It also flows better. I still write in a single draft, although I am better about proofing for spelling! Indeed, my first Master’s thesis was written in a compilation of first drafts! The work was 204 pages long – divided over six chapters. Each chapter was written in a single draft, in a single setting. Changes were only made after the committee reviewed it and insisted on…two! (Both were typos!)

The title of this post is a line spoken by the Sentry in Antigone…a minor line. But in re-reading the play this week, I realize it may have been more significant than I realized and became a sort of mantra for my life. My wife and I always told our daughters and our students that they needed to learn as much as possible so they could make informed decisions about their lives. Once those decisions were made, however, they needed to trust their instincts and never second guess themselves.

So the writing Gladys finally opened up in me…writing from the heart…is still helping me 45 years later! Who says you never use that high school English stuff years later???

Man was made to mourn: A Dirge

Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!


And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

I am one with the Force…the Force is one with me

I reorganized my DVD collection last week and ran a Star Wars marathon first thing afterwards. To paraphrase Master Yoda, very fortunate I was to have a partner whose interests in entertainment closely matched my own! Seriously, it was a rare occasion when she was interested in a movie that I just did not care to see…and vice versa. She was into sci fi before there was a sci fi channel…she was into fantasy/dungeons and dragons before the abundance of board games and Game of Thrones knock offs….she was into alternative history and historical fiction…the list goes on. So we built a Star Wars collection…and Star Trek…and Stargate (SG-1 and Atlantis)…and Harry Potter…and Game of Thrones…and Tolkien…and….

Anyway, one of the last Star Wars films we saw together was “Rogue One.” Like the rest of the franchise, this movie disappoint me it did not! Sorry…so easy it is to slip into Yoda-isms! What I’m trying to get at is the abundance of quotable lines from the various movies…”Luke, I am your father…”…”So this is how democracy dies…with thunderous applause….”…Don’t believe me? Re-watch the movies and keep score every time a quote pops up you have seen on social media or in everyday language usage. I dare you, because…”I find your lack of faith…disturbing!”

What struck me in Rogue One was not so much a quote but a mantra…”I am one with the Force. The Force is one with me.” Here is this blind character in the midst of a heavy firefight, calming his mind and summoning inner strength by chanting this mantra before he goes out to try and turn the tide of the battle. Impressive to me because I’ve seen it before on the road…and I use the same Jedi mind trick myself…maybe not that exact quote, but….

Yes, I ride a lot. And when I do ride, I cover a pretty decent amount of mileage. Last year, I went on exactly 200 rides outdoors, covering 9634 miles, for an average of just over 48 miles each ride. That is fairly consistent with what I have done in the past, the difference is primarily that I went out more frequently last year than in years past. My wife used to marvel at how I kept from getting bored out of my mind, and how I could will myself to the finish. She, herself, loved the IDEA of exercise. She loved how she LOOKED in her matching kit on her aero, high-end carbon bike. She loved the admiration she got from students and colleagues when she would come back and tell them that she had knocked off 25 miles on a fundraiser ride for charity over the weekend. But she hated the work! I couldn’t get her to ride indoors at all, and rarely would she climb onto the treadmill (just in winters a couple of times each week because it was too cold to walk outdoors!) Then she witnessed first-hand one day how I did it…how many of us do it, actually.

In June of 2015 we had just finished our second PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan annual week long bike tour) that covered 425 miles over six days and immediately hightailed it to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a two day bike tour for the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge network. These facilities are intended for usage by cancer patients and their families while undergoing treatment at a local hospital. This was a cause very dear to my wife, as she had lost almost every female in her family – grandmother, mother, aunts – to cancer. She had just been diagnosed as BRCA-1 positive and was undergoing prophylactic surgeries to eliminate the threat (or so we thought). How could I not do this ride? It was “just” another 180 miles – that started the day after the 425 mile trip had ended! But…rather than tent like we had been, there was to be an overnight stay in the dorms of a university that graciously donated usage and meals to the American Cancer Society for rider benefit. Besides, as my wife pointed out, she would be far from bored on the trip…while I was escaping Hershey with the other riders, she would take the opportunity to explore her own version of “the happiest place on earth!”…the Hershey chocolate factory and museum!

We arrived late Friday night, checked in, and I fell asleep immediately. The next day, we went to the starting line and picked up the final map for the day, filled my water bottles, grabbed a few snacks, and she started writing dedications on a huge banner that was to be kept in the Philadelphia Hope Lodge for the following year. Tears rolled down her face as she wrote the names of all her loved ones. The morning was already emotional…it was chilly, raining, and a strong wind coming in from the east….I would say it was a classic Nor’easter, but it was the last week of June, for crying out loud! Regardless, how could I be a wimp while she was grieving her losses? Then we (the riders) were each handed a personal note. People who were currently staying at Hope Lodges had written personal thank you notes to each one of the riders, describing what the Hope Lodge network meant to them. Oh, God! Now I was crying reading this note from a woman about her fight to keep her husband with her and her children. No way on this earth was I stopping or abandoning the ride after such an emotional send off.

I’d like to say that it got better. It didn’t. According to my Garmin, the average temperature that late June day was 44 degrees (we were headed into the mountains). The wind speed was a steady 15mph out of the north east (guess which direction we were headed into?). There was over 5000 feet of climbing in my 101+ miles that day, and the rain was constant and heavy. I had to change my kit in Rehrersburg, after meeting my wife there for a brief rest, lunch, and a warm-up in the car.

She tried talking me into abandoning and letting her SAG me and a friend I had made along the way into Kutztown. I was shivering like Han Solo coming out of the carbon freeze, and I was just as soaked! She told me that most people were abandoning on the road, or had decided to take the shorter route to Kutztown (a 67 mile route was available, but most hard core cyclists wanted the 101 mile route due to the climbing and the distance). There were less than 30 of the more than 150 century loop riders that opted to stay with the original plan. She told me I had nothing left to prove to anybody…that she was beyond impressed when she saw me motor up a Cat 2,  8% grade climb, leaving everybody in my wake while her little Kia Soul struggled at times to do the same climb! Sobbing and shaking, I told her I couldn’t. How could I? Her family didn’t call it quits midway thru treatment. The woman I got the note from wasn’t calling it quits. And she, my badass, beautiful wife wasn’t calling it quits when she got her diagnosis. No way was I giving up. Besides, I had learned a trick from this guy, who was just pulling in to the Rehrersburg church we were at for the moment.

This man was an oncologist. He was of Indian descent, and he also had been doing the 101 mile route. I had passed him twice that morning. I stopped for a break each time afterwards and he passed me by while I was recovering and re-orientating my priorities. I noticed each time I passed that he was chanting. The third time I caught up to him, I pedaled alongside for a while and struck up a conversation. He said that the mantra he was chanting helped him to maintain a cadence, focus on something other than the wind, rain, and pain of climbing, and helped him maintain a connection to the conscious circle of humanity he was pedaling for. Wow. Being relatively new to the art of long distance cycling, I thought I would give it a try myself.

Prior to this, I had been using music to get me thru the longer rides. I have a custom built 240 GB iPod that is full of music (yes, I own all of the CD’s that are on it!) and I piped this through a speaker on the front of my bike, or had earbuds. As I rode more frequently and on roads that were more heavily traveled by cars, I quickly realized this was a dangerous practice that interfered with my ability to hear/notice approaching traffic. The rhythm/cadence my doctor friend was speaking of, I was well-familiar with, of course. This practice goes back millennia to military usage – the Romans were particularly adept at using music and rhythm to pound out a cadence for the oarsmen as they entered a naval battle. There is an abundance of sea chanteys and railroad work songs that were used by workers to unify their efforts and complete tasks. Of course, in modern times, even The Big Bang Theory acknowledged the usefulness when Sheldon helped Penny improve her manufacturing efforts for her “Penny Blossom” hair accessories!

What I didn’t have, though, was a mantra of my own. Or did I? Just before Rehrersburg, knowing that my wife was waiting for me there, I applied this lesson. You may recall that my mother had read to me “The Little Engine That Could” as a child while I was overcoming a crippling leg injury. For some reason, “I think I can, I think I can” popped into my head as I was trying to figure out what to use. At that point in my life, I was aware of Buddhist teachings, the practice of mindfulness, etc., but had not yet begun to apply them myself. This was as close as I could come. So I started with each rise on the road. Each time the wind came up in velocity. And as I greeted her for lunch after 10 miles of this, I knew it was working. So I explained to her what my plan was…she wasn’t going to let me leave without one, as the wind and rain were not letting up and my shivering had her concerned.

She pulled over about every 7 miles to wait for me along the 34 miles to our overnight destination. It worked. The length of the phrase matched perfectly with my cadence/pedal stroke. The reminder of making it through impossibly difficult times helped focus my energy to overcome the present circumstances and calm my mind. It was the single roughest day in the saddle I have EVER known….but it ended well, and she was able to observe me doing it.

I believe anyone can apply this lesson, but it is important to understand what and how it is useful for, and then discover your own mantra/chant that works for you.

First, the mantra must connect with your breath. If the mantra is too long, it will not help on a task that is so physically demanding that the breath is significantly strained and shorter than the phrase.  “I think I can” is still my go to for climbing hills and mountains. It matches my cadence and breath intake/output very well, and the syllabic stress matches my pedal mashing tendencies!

Second, the mantra must focus and calm your mind. If you are struggling for words, or if the mantra is too complicated or not suited to the task, then you will allow the circumstances surrounding your task to overwhelm you. I have a couple of chants I like to use depending on the situation on the road. Earlier today, for example, I was approaching an area where I have been chased multiple times by a dog whose owner who allows it to run free. I have the dog on video, snapping at my heels, and have confronted the owner about this with little support or concern on his part. It has gotten to the point that I have found alternative ways of circumventing this property to avoid the conflict. Today, however, it was cold (26 degrees F) and windy (10 mph) and I wasn’t in the mood to compromise. I found myself tensing up as I came within a mile of the property. When I noticed I started having an imaginary confrontation with the owner, I checked my mind and convinced myself to not buy trouble before it happened, so I started chanting “Om shanti om” (a call for universal peace) to myself. Yes, it matched my cadence and breath. It helped me focus on what I wanted and off from what I was afraid might happen. And it worked. Not saying the dog was inside because some Buddhist deity heard my prayer. But what the chant DID do was help me relax and enjoy the ride. The tension in my shoulders lessened. The death grip on the handlebars eased. My breath came back under control, and I was able to enjoy the ride.

Finally, I believe as my oncologist friend does, that a mantra should help you connect with the conscious circle of humanity. This is really important for me. It is very easy as a cyclist to get pissed off at motorists who zoom past you with a foot to spare…who call you vile and filthy names due to your kit or the fact that you slowed them down for 0.5 seconds…who roll coal…if I were to respond to each of these instances, I would be lowering myself to a baser level, and increase the anxiety I feel. I get to go outdoors and ride my bike because I want to. Not everybody can say that. I do feel that there is hope for the human race, even though we are apparently going through some rough times as a species right now! I saw a meme yesterday that said “The best way to ease communication between you and another is to realize that many people are just born stupid!” Funny…not true…but funny. However, many of us are indeed ignorant of others’ needs and as a cyclist, I hope to change that dialogue.

As a reminder, I was nearing home late yesterday afternoon. It had been a particularly gloomy day, but warm for January (40 degrees F). It was not dusk, but, of course, I had all my lights going…my helmet was on…and I was wearing bright clothing with a reflective vest outside my jacket. Pedaling down the road, I was feeling pretty good. First ride on my cyclo cross bike in a while as my dog has been seriously ill and our roads were just recovering from a heavy ice storm. It was a flat stretch of the road, so I start chanting “Om mani padme om” to increase my cadence (wanted to make it home before dark) and express a oneness with the world I had felt during the ride. Then it happened.

A red SUV made a turn shortly after I had and sped up to overtake me. About a quarter mile down the road, I noticed it pulled off into the driveway of an abandoned house and the driver got out quickly. I’m thinking “Crap!” My mantra instantly changes to “Om shanti om” as I have been assaulted before by drivers before who overtake me, pull off the road, and attempt to pull me off the bike simply for impeding their desired speed. Just before I get there, however, the driver starts applauding. I cocked my head and thought “Sarcasm?” Nope. She and her passenger, a young girl who she was taking out for a practice drive on her learners permit, shouted out “Thank you so much for making yourself visible and noticeable!”

Faith in humanity restored. I am one with the Force. The Force is one with me!

We can never go back to before

It’s actually a popular theme in literature. Our innate desire to return to a more idyllic setting or time. “The Twilight Zone” highlighted this with two episodes in the first season…A Stop at Willoughby and Walking Distance. Both episodes featured a man in middle age, seeking to escape the pressures and stresses of an overly hectic modern lifestyle. One finds a mental escape to a mythological town from the previous century, replete with bandstands, ice cream socials, etc. The other takes a walk and finds himself back in the hometown of his childhood…confronted by a much younger version of himself and his long deceased parents. It doesn’t end well in either case.

Most religions stress that all human suffering is impermanent. The Buddha is credited with comparing time to a river “You cannot touch the same water twice because the flow that has passed will never pass again.” In doing so, Buddha teaches that not only is our past suffering impermanent, but our past joys as well. Stephen Flaherty puts it a bit more bluntly in the song “Back to Before” from his Tony Award winning musical Ragtime. In this song, and at this point in her life, Mother is acknowledging all of her past joys and yet is stating that she has grown and must move on from these. That in order to live…truly LIVE…we can never go back to before.

So here we are on New Year’s Eve. I have just finished my last ride of 2019, and, like the rest of you, are reflecting on the past year and wondering what 2020 will bring. Many resolutions will be made this evening. Most will be broken by the end of next week. Some will be kept throughout the year. Does this mean that those who keep their resolutions are better, or more successful than the rest of us? And what goes in to planning those resolutions? Are there ways to construct resolutions that have more of a chance of success? Most importantly, perhaps, is the question of why we even bother.

As for the inventory of my goals and resolutions from last year – see “What Now Carl?” blog post #2 – I can only state that I gave them the old college try. Some were kept – my mileage goal that was my last promise to my wife was surpassed in November. The goal of 8500 miles translated into 9634 miles on the road. Man, are my legs tired! Also, last year I had mentioned that I wanted to keep alive an active streak of consecutive months of earning a STRAVA Gran Fondo badge – earned by completing at least one ride of 62 miles or longer in the course of a month. That streak now stands at 20 months and is ongoing, as I completed 51 such rides last year – including at least one in every single month. I had also stated that I wanted to earn the STRAVA monthly distance challenge badge (1250km or 777.5 miles in a single month) at least seven times (one more than my previous record for a year). I met that goal in November, and almost made it eight in December, but fell just short.

But not all was a bed of roses. While I did participate in some RUSA events…completing two and forced to abandon a third due to a severe electrical storm with a blinding downpour…I did not, after all, complete a 100, 200, 300, 400, and 600k series of events. In fact, I found the truth of Buddha’s teaching in that the RUSA I had been so enamored of before my life was turned upside down, was not the same that I had come back to. I had changed. Leadership had changed. Rules and expectations had changed. The waters had quite literally moved on, and I have opted for the time being to no longer participate in RUSA activities. Does this make me a failure? It sure doesn’t feel like it. I did enough 100-200k rides this year to know that I am capable of doing the distance in the time frame. I also know how frustrated I was with the changes and how miserable/grumpy I would have been had I chosen to participate more in RUSA events. By stepping back and focusing on my riding experience and mileage, I gained more enjoyment from my time in the saddle.

In fact, the decision to drop RUSA and explore more on my own led to a few happy discoveries! One July day I decided to ride to my hometown and visit my parents’ graves. I chose to do this on a very long stretch of a seldom used gravel road. It was peaceful. It was glorious. Upon my return, and while looking at the route in my STRAVA heat map, an ad suggesting the app “Wandrer.earth” came up. This app, like STRAVA, tracks your rides and displays them on a map. That is where the comparison ends! The app is also a game. Unlike the STRAVA heat map, which changes colors as you ride a particular route more frequently, this app will give you points for riding a particular road…but only the first time you ride it! The goal is to see how many different roads you can ride in a given area, state, country, or the entire earth! One point per mile…bonus points for completing certain percentages of a city or town. Bonus points if you have covered the most unique miles (the first time miles on roads) in a county, state, country, or earth for a given month! Challenge accepted!

Did you know that there are 32,260,997 miles of roads on earth? (well, roads that are not marked private or designated as freeway/motorway only) At this writing, I have earned 9976 points for riding different roads on the planet over the course of the last 7 years (yes, they will go back and upload your previous rides from STRAVA), have covered 0.03% of the earth’s public roads, and rank in the top 170 users of the app! My ranking in the US and State of Michigan is much higher! Actually, I have covered over 3.5% of all roads in Michigan, which has over 169,000 miles of roads. That ranks 1st among all app users…as does the 51.5% of the roads I have traveled down in my own county (out of over 1600).

By inspiring me to explore, I have used this app as fuel to travel over 1425 new miles of roads this year…better than one out of every seven miles I covered was new (to me) road! I daresay the RUSA experience would not have generated that kind of excitement or sense of accomplishment for me. I know this would have excited my wife. Again, although we enjoyed our invitationals over the years, she was concerned about the cost. So far, all of the exploration has been free! And breathtaking!

Invitationals…yep. Did my share again this year, albeit fewer than in years past, and not all that I had mentioned in my post a year ago. I did the Pumpkin Pie Ride in Ottawa, and the Angie’s Angels Legacy Ride in Grand Rapids…but I also did a new one in Indiana to benefit public school STEM programs. The ride route was literally designed to look like a giant Space Invader, and thus constituted my first STRAVA art! (see pic below!) It inspired me to redesign the route for the Angie’s Angels Legacy Ride into a pair of angel wings, if a rider opted to do the entire route! Good thing I never went to art school! It didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. I needed more diagonal roads! Even the designer of the Pumpkin Pie Ride got into the act and designed his route to look like Snoopy as the World War I flying ace atop his dog house…scarf flying in the wind! Three pieces of STRAVA art for the year…not bad!

But what’s next, you ask? You can guess at a few goals fairly easily, I am sure. Another year, another increase in overall mileage – just as I promised her. 9500 miles in 2020. I did it this year, so I am actually hoping to cross 10000 miles by a year from now. The basic goal will require 26 miles/day. That should be easy enough to average. I had a total of 11 different periods this year where I did no riding for seven consecutive days. Some of those were back to back. If I can cut down on the time I spend sitting on my all too expansive rear, I might even hit 11,000 miles by year’s end! The coolest thing about this year was that I set personal bests for mileage in a month during January, April, May, June, September, November, and December! If I can just come close to those, and set new personal records in February and March, I know I’ll have a great year in the saddle.

Obviously the Gran Fondo streak is something I would like to keep going. As I said a year ago, December, January, and February are the hardest months to log one of these in the State of Michigan. I did, however, just acquire my first set of studded tires for my fat tire bike! Road conditions will no longer be a viable excuse! Along the way this year, I started paying more attention to the mileage accrued on my various bikes. I rotated through them more often to help limit the wear and tear, but it also provided a great deal of enjoyment as I rediscovered the feel of each. This year, of course, I put more miles on four of my bikes than I had ever put on them in a single year before. I came very close to doing so on my cyclocross bike as well. I’d like to continue with that somehow next year, but haven’t quite made up my mind about how to go about it yet.

Other than those, I have only one new goal for the year. Several years ago, again, as I said in my What Now post last year, my wife and I had started to plan long bike adventures for retirement. The initial trial run was going to be in the summer of 2020, because that was the year I was going to retire. The trip was going to be from Vancouver or Seattle to Bar Harbor. Of course, such a trip would have been fairly easy to do with her acting as SAG (when she wasn’t shopping or stopping at cafes) (with my blessing) (like I would have had a choice!) and carrying the camping equipment and gear. I know she would want me to do this. So I will spend this winter refining my packing list, speaking with local, provincial, and state organizations about the best possible routes and camping facilities, and my children about who is going to house sit for me while I pedal 4000 miles between June 10th and August 13th. The beginning date was to be the week after my last day ever in the classroom. The end date would have been her birthday. I wanted her to be able to relax and be waited on by me on the ocean shore that day.

Over the last month I have written about what drives me…what keeps me going…so you can see how I go about this whole goal setting thing. Since I pedaled 9600 miles-plus this year, you might very well ask “Why not go for 10,500?” The answer is, of course, that I will most assuredly strive for that total. But it can’t be the goal. Goals and resolutions have to be grounded in realism. This does not mean you must set the bar low, by any means. But setting the bar too high only sets one up for failure. At this point in my life I am not set up well to deal with failure. I failed to keep her alive. I failed to keep my dog Jasper alive. And as I write, her dog Ginger is struggling with the after effects of a November surgery that I believe will result in her death at any point…losing yet another piece of my beautiful bride. Much like the Detroit Lions, (or Detroit Red Wings) (or Detroit Tigers) (or Detroit Pistons) (see a pattern here?) I need wins…however inconsequential they may seem.

I once took over an inner city junior high choral program that had literally been laughed off the stage by their peers and relatives the previous year. My first day I sat down with them and asked them what their goal was for the new school year. What did THEY want to get out of choir? Almost to a person, they said they just didn’t want to get laughed at anymore. Fair enough, although a low bar. We worked on setting their sights a bit higher. They swore to me they would do anything I asked as long as they didn’t get laughed at. The band directors were shocked when I told them mid-year that I was taking them to a competitive festival for the first time. They cautioned that a Division III (out of IV, with I being the highest) would be a major feather in my cap (their exact words), but that I might want to take them (the ensemble) for comments only to “protect them.” We earned a Division II, just a few points off from a Division I. Those kids needed a win. Within a few years, they were posting I’s, earning All-State Honors Choir spots, etc.

They never went back to before. Neither did I. Every district I ever taught at was the same story. The kids needed a win…inner city school kids don’t give a damn about educational outcomes, scope and sequence of instruction…they just want to have some pride in their lives. Every district, although starting from different perspectives, obtained the same results. Not because I am such a great leader…again, I think I am just a herder of cats!…but because they were committed to never going back to before.

Too many resolutions and goals focus on restrictions…what you shouldn’t do, or want to stop doing. This is why so many resolutions fail, in my opinion. When your focus is on the negative it is all too easy to quit when the habits just don’t magically go away. I was able to get my students to focus on new abilities that matched some of their own interests…to get them to trust me as their biggest cheerleader as well as their biggest critic…to focus on acquiring new skills as opposed to stop perpetuating poor behavior. It turned their focus outward as opposed to inward.

In the last month or so, my abler soul has truly begun to work that magic in me. Yes, I slip from day to day and get depressed, etc. You think I didn’t have to assign detentions or referrals? Please! I was simultaneously the most hated and most loved teacher in my buildings…which meant I was doing my job!…. SQUIRREL! …. Sorry .. my point is that I know that for me to stay alive, keep my promises to her, that I must daily approach life the same way I did for those kids. My life – OUR life – going forward has to be about those grandsons and being there for them to learn from. To do so, I cannot expect to touch the same water twice. I am focusing on wins…minor skirmishes…and moving forward with goals that will help me do just that.

I hope the same for you!